by Lia Swope Mitchell

The five girls sat in a circle with small candles at its center, clutching each other's hands and squinching their eyes shut. One flame flickered and burnt out.

Just a quick one, the ghost thought. It had been so long.

"Look," said the tallest girl, a freckly redhead with new breasts straining the brand name on her old t-shirt.

"Quit peeking," another one hissed. "They won't come if you're peeking."

He'd been good lately, he couldn't even remember the last time—they were so young, though. Too young, even, to be pretty: gawky creatures with big avid eyes and long skinny legs, a strange praying-mantis stage of human development. They'd been playing at being women, though, as evidenced in their overpainted faces and the fresh lipstick prints decorating a poster of some soft-faced eunuch of a popstar, free of stubble and blemish and lust.

Having been, at one time, a real boy, who had never been that pure or evoked so much adoration, the ghost found all that ostentatious virginity singularly galling. In a flash of irritation he chose: the smallest one, her blond hair slicked into a tight french braid against the freckled skin of her back. She sat with hunched shoulders and her head jutting forward as she waited for something to happen. Fine, then. Something would happen. Just for a minute. As he leaned into her the ghost first heard and then felt her gasp, her straightening spine—and then it was him lifting the lids of her eyes, blinking them and looking around, carefully turning her head on its narrow stem.

"Jessie?" another girl asked with a giggle. Jessie's mind supplied the name: Christine. At her side was Kammi, and the one with the breasts was Hannah. He was holding the hands of Sarah and Hannah—too hard, he found, a remnant of the girl's brief anxiety before she went under, and the two were staring. He let go.

"You broke the circle," Sarah said. She was the leader, captain of their dance team, a black-haired girl with perpetually shocked brown eyes and a fine complexion. The darkened room, the pink ruffled bed, the posters, those were hers. "What's wrong, Jessie?"

"Jessie's fine," the ghost said. "She's asleep right now, basically. She'll be back soon."

At his voice, a lower-pitched version of Jessie's with broad New England vowels—nice to hear himself again, even if his accent sounded stranger every year—the girls all screamed, jumped up and bunched together on the other side of the room.

"Ohmygodohmygodohmygod," Hannah said, while Sarah told Jessie to quit faking, and Christine and Kammi stared at him with rounded eyes.

"My name is Bob," he told them, which wasn't true, but he hadn't really felt tied to any particular name for a while. "Do you want to ask me questions?"

He waited through another burst of shrieks and finally Sarah rolled her eyes. "Well, how did you die, Bob?"

"I was traveling in a boxcar and I jumped off too early," he told her, leaving out the moonshine that caused his misjudgment. "This was back during the Depression. People used to ride the rails all the time."

"Why aren't you in heaven?" Sarah said, folding bony arms across her chest.

"That's not really a polite question. Would you ask Jessie about all the bad things she's ever done?" He found one, grinned. What a little girl would do for Barbie legwarmers. "No, I won't tell on her."

Christine asked, "You can read Jessie's mind?"

"Sure," he answered, and stood. "If I wanted to. All pretty typical, though, I suppose."

The girls gasped and hugged again as he lifted a hand, the nails sparkling in their polish before

the blinking eyes. The small body felt strong, lithe and light, the gut a bit sour and trembly with

too much soda pop. He swung a leg experimentally, felt the swish of her flannel pajama pants,

pointed the toe in front of him—it sparkled, too—then set the foot flat.

"She's a nice girl," he told them when he looked up. "You're all nice girls. At least, Jessie likes you."

"What about boys? Does she like any boys?" Kammi asked, and they all started giggling.

The ghost sighed, thought for a moment, then shook the head, the silky brush of the braid caressing the skin between the shoulderblades. "No, no boys."

"Now you know she's lying," Sarah snorted. "Jessie likes all the boys."

But it was too nice, being corporeal, to let these distractions ruin his indulgence, so he ignored whatever exclamations came next. This girl—he twirled Jessie in a slow circle, inhaled deeply through her nose, and let out a small laugh—she was so healthy, so flexible and full of energy. Not like his own body, with all its fermented and corrupted fibers, rotten even before its death. But there was no point thinking about that, not now.

"Oh, this is good," he sighed, wishing, as he always did, that he could just enjoy a body for a while, in peace, without all the annoyances that came with them. There was nothing like it for the first half hour or so, all that avalanche of sensation, the breath, the heartbeat, the constant hum of circulating blood. And the skin, good Christ, yes, the skin. But the newness always wore off, and then at some point the body had to be fed or rested, or some stupid or filthy thing happened, and it was best just to leave. He had to be careful.

Especially with a girl. So sensitive girls were, especially at this age. But one more minute wouldn't do any harm. He stretched Jessie out as far as she'd go and then, pulling the arms down, ran the hands over the flat chest in its ribbed cotton camisole, down the ribcage, the firm belly.

"Oh my god, you're like a pervert," Sarah said.

"You're really a little bitch, aren't you?" the ghost snapped at the interruption.

Her black-lined eyes narrowed. "Don't you call me a—Jessie, you—"

"Oh, no, it's not Jessie. No, Jessie—" He dug around, retrieved some remembered thought. "Jessie likes you a lot. Ever since last summer, at the pool, when you—ah."

He focused the image better, something blown out with sunshine and the smell of chlorine, and felt a flush of warmth in Jessie's cheeks. This was nice. Yes, this was lovely.

"Mine are bigger," he quoted, imitating Sarah's high, nasal tone. "Do you wanna touch them?"

A smirk crystallized on her face, her eyes an outraged glitter.

"You're such a liar—"

"Did you ever kiss a boy?" he asked, softening Jessie's lips into a drowsy smile. "Maybe we should practice."

He reached out to lay the small fingers over her mouth, just like in the memory, and began to lean in. Sarah smacked the hand down and it dropped to her breast, where the pad of her bra muted the small point of her nipple. Letting the hand rest there, the ghost said in his own voice, "Hey now. Honey, you are way too young for me."

"Oh my god," Hannah said, and he had a second to wonder if she knew any other words before Sarah slapped the face hard, abruptly dislodging him.

Jessie dropped with mismatched cheeks, one pale, the other bright red. The others fell to their knees in a circle around her, babbling their confusion until the girl opened her eyes, flicked them back and forth, then sat up and bolted for the bathroom. Hovering nearby, the ghost watched her go, grateful to have escaped that particular bodily experience, the gushing retch of vomit that he remembered so well and without fondness.

The others followed her, exclaiming and asking what had happened, did she remember, was she okay; all but Sarah, who stood with her hand still suspended in the air, breathing through her mouth. After a while she sighed, curved her lips into something sweet and artificial, and left to join her friends.

The girls would tend to Jessie, the ghost thought. Then they'd compare their stories; some would swear it was true, others would call her a faker, and she herself would never quite be sure what had happened. Maybe she'd be teased, traumatized, an outcast.

Always it turned out this way, no matter what, in his own short and misshapen life as well as after: so good while it lasted but then—nausea. Regret. And he'd known better. Never again, he told himself for the hundredth time as he dissipated back into the ether. No more possessions, not even for a second. No more regrets.

BIO: Lia Mitchell is a PhD candidate in French literature at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. She writes fiction on the sly.